On Leadership: Communication Strategies for Better Team Performance

First posted on the UVA Global Network

What makes a great leader? Great is the key word because “we’re not looking for just good” (as I was once told in an interview). We have each seen examples of excellent and horrific leadership. I’ve witnessed ownership give paychecks a week early for Hurricane Sandy relief and I’ve seen management that enjoys making employees cry. Everybody has a different style of leadership, but some are more effective than others.

Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells was famous for treating players differently, including such polarizing stars as Lawrence Taylor and Terrell Owens. Parcells’ leadership style was sometimes criticized for being unfair, which prompted his response: “I’m not interested in being fair. I’m interested in being right.” Most leaders are interested in being both right and fair, as far as each is possible. Honest communication is of the utmost importance for developing cohesiveness and trust in fair, right leadership.

One strategy for building a cohesive unit is encouraging casual conversation. Talking just for the sake of talking reinforces a leader’s approachability and concern for employees so that they will feel comfortable bringing up problems or new ideas with team leadership and with each other. In high school, a football coach used to ask me to tell a story before each summer practice. I became more and more comfortable as a new part of the team as this was part of an overall approachability the coach cultivated, but he didn’t waste the opportunity to lead either. He shocked me once when he asked if I thought I was a man. After I responded in the affirmative as I thought I should, he said, “That’s interesting. I wasn’t a man until after college.” Modeling honest communication in leadership through informal channels increased team cohesiveness under this coach and also established a precedent for feedback that was necessary for team success.

Along the same lines, the best professor I had in college showed that admitting one’s ignorance is a great way to build trust. When our professor fielded student questions to which he did not have an answer, he would respond, “I don’t have an answer now, but I’ll get back to you with one.” He always came back with an answer, and we always gave him the benefit of the doubt.

Honesty gets a lot more traction than the alternative. In my experience, dishonesty is often transparent and one of the quicker ways to lose trust and unravel your team. Talk informally with your employees and answer questions honestly to cultivate trust and team cohesion. We can’t all be in the Hall of Fame, but we can improve our leadership in the interest of being right and fair.

What are the qualities or strategies that you think make great leaders?